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Sonoma County's new public power supplier and its allies beat back a challenge in Sacramento this week that would have made it more difficult and costly to enroll new customers, altering a bill that posed a major threat to Sonoma Clean Power and other agencies like it forming across the state.

"It's a huge victory," said Geof Syphers, CEO of Sonoma Clean Power.

A provision that would have required electricity customers to individually sign up for service from a public power agency, known as a community-choice aggregator, or CCA, was removed from Assembly Bill 2145 on Monday during a hearing of the state Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee.

As a result, households and businesses within the jurisdiction of Sonoma Clean Power and other agencies like it will continue to be automatically enrolled, requiring customers to opt out if they wish to remain with their present electricity supplier.

"We protected Sonoma County's right to participate in Sonoma Clean Power," Syphers said Wednesday. "Where it stands now, the default service stays with community choice. We're very happy with that."

Syphers said the defeat of the opt-in provision in AB 2145 would make it easier for Sonoma Clean Power to add customers and for new CCAs across the state to form. Sonoma Clean Power is courting Petaluma, Rohnert Park and Cloverdale, which have not joined the program. The agency serves customers in Santa Rosa, Sonoma, Cotati, Windsor, Sebastopol and the unincorporated areas of Sonoma County.

The bill by Assemblyman Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, is supported by PG&E and a union representing electrical workers. Hunter Stern, representative for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, said that removing the opt-in provision from the bill was part of a compromise. The Senate energy committee also added language that would confine a CCA's boundaries to three contiguous counties. The changes, he said, will not hinder new public power agencies from launching but put limits on their growth.

"It was never our intent to keep CCAs from forming," he said. "We were trying to find the right combination of language to allow new CCAs to start but not allow them to expand."

The bill, which passed the Assembly last month, now heads to the Senate Environmental Quality Committee.

Environmental groups celebrated the amended language.

"The good news is that the worst of the bill was taken out," said Ann Hancock, executive director of the Santa Rosa-based Climate Protection Campaign, which led the fight against the bill. "We're thrilled."

The political victory in Sacramento comes just days after Sonoma Clean Power inked a long-term deal to purchase energy that will, in turn, facilitate construction of a 30-megawatt solar project in the Central Valley.

Under the agreement, Sonoma Clean Power pledged to purchase all power produced by the proposed solar project for 20 years. With a long-term customer in place, project developer Recurrent Energy can now obtain financing to build the facility near Lemoore, a rural city in Kings County.

Construction is scheduled to be completed in late 2016. The project will generate enough power to supply 9,000 homes.

Sonoma Clean Power declined to release the financial terms of the deal, but said the cost of the electricity from the new facility is lower than any of its current contracts for renewable energy.

"This 20-year deal secures pricing that helps Sonoma Clean Power maintain its low costs and deliver further reductions in greenhouse gas emissions," Supervisor Susan Gorin, chair of the Sonoma Clean Power board, said in a statement.

Sonoma Clean Power, which began serving customers in Sonoma County in May, aims to provide electricity that is cleaner and cheaper than PG&E and that is generated locally. The new solar project will help the agency keep costs 4 to 5 percent lower than PG&E with an energy mix that is 30 percent renewable, officials said.

Other local renewable projects are in the works, officials said, including a Sonoma County Water Agency proposal to install floating solar arrays on treated wastewater ponds and potentially sell the electricity to the power authority, and a plan to purchase power from solar customers.

"The fact that we signed a deal for new solar in California within the sixth week of serving customers is extraordinary," Syphers said. "It's exciting to roll out early."

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